By Zubeida Mustafa
SOMETIME ago, I was trying to teach Shaan, a teenager studying in a school in a low-income neighbourhood, about the rotation of the earth, the solar eclipse and the pull of gravity. After describing these phenomena, I asked him why we didn’t fall off the earth when it rotates. He very promptly replied, “Because God has willed it so.”
His lack of curiosity about natural phenomena left me thunderstruck. Then a look at the science textbooks used in our schools gave me a better insight into the disinterest of our students in science. They are required to memorise a mass of text which supposedly informs them about scientific issues.
This is characteristic of not just children. After all, they grow up to be adults who are equally ill-informed. We no longer have writers like Azim Kidwai who wrote on science for Dawn readers until his death in the 1990s. No science communicator — be it a fiction writer or a journalist — has tickled the imagination of children in recent years in Pakistan.
Our children continue to be disinterested in science.
Hence it was a dream come true when I attended a workshop organised by Lalah Rukh Malik for youngsters in the Reading Room Project in Karachi’s Neelum Colony. She actually involved each child in simple experiments she conducted while explaining the scientific principles behind them. Some were in the form of games which the children enjoyed thoroughly. Others were activities they had to carry out such as adding a tablet to some liquid and observing the chemical reaction. The approach was very scientific. The children were taught how to document the experiments they conducted and record the results accurately.
Lalah Rukh, the founder of Science Fuse, discovered her fascination for ‘science communication’ quite accidentally. In school, she had studied science as her parents wanted her to become a doctor. She describes her high school education in Pakistan as “uninspiring, inadequate and challenging”. That prompted her to go to Norway for further studies.
There a new world of molecular biology and biotechnology opened up before her. She also realised that “promoting enthusiasm for science” could also be pursued as a career. This realisation became a passion when she started writing for a students’ magazine and in the process discovered her talent for weaving fascinating and captivating science stories for young readers.
In effect, Lalah was making science more accessible to children. Her job at the Forskerfabrikken (Scientist Factory), an organisation that was working to promote informal science learning amongst children in Norway, was an exciting experience. She learnt to devise fun, interactive and hands-on methods to introduce STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education to children.
Since she had not lost touch with Pakistan and visited the country every summer, it was only natural that she chose to test her ideas in the schools here. Science Fuse was set up. Its approach was egalitarian as Lalah wished to use science education to create equal opportunities for all children. She has conducted workshops in non-profit schools for the underprivileged for no charge as well as for the most prestigious schools which pay. Lalah hopes to inspire children from a diverse range of backgrounds to pursue STEM education and STEM-based careers.
She is of the opinion that Pakistan particularly needs STEM experts to solve its major problems such as the energy crisis and infrastructure development. STEM education can equip our country with problem-solvers, thinkers and innovators, she believes.
Given the absence of a science culture in Pakistan, will Science Fuse succeed in its mission? Will schools which do not bother to invest in science teaching want to create a demand for science education that would make children interested in the subject and thus increase the school’s capital investment?
Above all, will an anti-science society like ours tolerate children being overly interested in science? A society that encourages those that take to the entertainment industry but shuns its Nobel Laureates including the late Prof Abdus Salaam and Malala Yousafzai, cannot be expected to welcome the inculcation of a scientific mindset among young people that would train them to think rationally,
Nevertheless, our hope rests with people like Lalah Rukh who do not convert their disillusionment into cynicism. Instead, they are willing to make their own contribution — even if modest — by using their knowledge for the good of society.
Lalah is approaching both the rich and poor to create a much-needed public momentum for science. She believes it is not religion but culture that is hampering progress. “Our culture deters curiosity and does not want individuals to ask questions and make informed decisions,” she says.
I would also add that vested interest uses religion to promote this culture of ignorance. After all, an empowered, learned and independent mind which questions and inquires can make authoritarian and dogmatic leaders in every walk of life uncomfortable.